COVID-19 and the ethics of mask wearing

Photo by cottonbro on

Regular readers of will have seen my occasional risk assessment and advice posts concerning COVID-19.  In summary, my position through the summer has been that churches should seek to move cautiously towards full re-opening. In the short term this would mean

  • Continuing to allow additional capacity to provide extra space for people to meet with the option of some ongoing social distancing
  • To encourage people to get vaccinated and/or continue regular testing and to carry out some level of internal contact tracing
  • That face-masks should not be compulsory but should be encouraged for those moving around buildings, in constrained areas and when standing to sing.

This advice is England specific as different parts of the UK are currently experiencing different levels of COVID transmission.

My personal approach is to wear a mask when on public transport and when going into buildings where there a significant crowds.  I do so because I believe this to be the responsible thing to do at the moment.  There are two reasons for this. First of all because it helps to reassure people who either are clinically vulnerable or are particularly anxious about the risk from COVID. Secondly, the best evidence we have seems to suggest that this will help contribute to reducing the risk of transmission.

It’s worth remembering how this works. First of all, the point of me wearing a mask is not that I protect myself from being infected but it makes it less likely that I will unwittingly infect you.  Secondly, it is not that masks provide 100% protection against transmission. Some people have pointed out that the holes to enable breathing are bigger than the particles that carry the virus. However, by wearing a mask, I reduce the number of particles that transmit. This means that the people sitting around me receive a lower viral load than if I was not wearing a mask. Combine that with vaccination giving them a level of immunity and they are both much less likely to be infected and if they are infected for it to be symptomatic and serious.

Some people have objected to mask wearing and seen it as a serious threat to civil liberties. I can understand the concern about something becoming permanent but I think what is more likely is that we’ll see a gradual reduction in mask wearing over time as cases reduce and as thevrius becomes endemic.

I’ve also seen comments about mask-wearing creating problems in terms of child language development and communication challenges between adults.  With regards to children, I’m not convinced – not, to be clear, because there wouldn’t be a risk but rather because the requirement for adults to wear masks previously and the guidance now should not impinge on interaction with young children.  They are not required or advised to wear masks in the UK and it is possible for adults to remove masks in family conversation settings and when teaching too. There is perhaps more of an issue in terms of communication with those who have hearing loss.  However, I suspect this can be easily rectified by encouraging people to find somewhere with less crowds and greater airflow to communicate with those who have hearing details, then remove their mask (with the other person’s permission).

Occasionally I hear suggestions that things like masks and vaccines are somehow anti-Christian. The vaccine has been linked to all sorts of weird and wonderful  (by which I mean downright bonkers and false) interpretations of Revelation. I’m not quite sure where the objection to masks comes from. However, as a friend pointed out, there’s Biblical precedent for face covering to protect against infectious disease.

45 “Those who suffer from a serious skin disease must tear their clothing and leave their hair uncombed.[a] They must cover their mouth and call out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’”[1]

Now, this doesn’t mean that we have a Biblical mandate for face-coverings in our context.  Indeed, some people reacted strongly to my friend’s quote arguing that here we have  quarantining and face covering required for the infectious whilst COVID guidelines have put the onus on the uninfected to quarantine and to wear face-masks. Of course, the point being that we don’t know if we are infectious but a symptomatic.

However, that’s not really the point.  The expectation is not that Leviticus 13 gives us guidelines for how to respond to COVID, that’s not its purpose. Rather, there’s a two stage argument here. The first stage is to deal with the objection that COVID measures are causing Christians to disobey God’s Word.  However, when we look at Scripture we see that many of the measures we use today were available to God’s people then. Therefore, Leviticus 13 functions defensively to refute the claim that masks are antibiblical and belong with anti-Christ.

The second stage is the positive argument for wearing masks and at this stage we are less interested in a legalistic application of Leviticus and more interested in applying the whole of Scripture wisely to our context..  Wider Scripture, including the New Testament provides principles including love for neighbour, respect for authority and concern for the vulnerable (see e.g. Romans 12-14).  That is the basis for wearing masks.

Now, as there isn’t a legal requirement to wear masks at the moment, it seems to me that we would do best to leave the question to people’s personal judgement -although we may choose to encourage a particular action.  At the same time, I would strongly encourage everyone to consider what is the most loving and most helpful action to take when deciding whether or not to wear a mask.

[1] Leviticus 13:45

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